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Limbaugh and the Imus Effect: Has Rush’s Mouth Written a Check His Sponsors Won’t Cash?

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Rush Limbaugh‘s repeated, ugly insults last week against Sandra Fluke — a Georgetown law student who testified in favor of insurance coverage of contraception — were terrible on plenty of levels. They were sick: the idea of an old man sitting in a radio studio, calling a young woman a “slut” for advocating birth control, accusing her of having “so much sex, it’s amazing she can even walk” and asking that she post sex videos online as restitution is not just rude, it’s straight up pervy. They were ill timed — or perfectly timed — coming in the midst of a frenzy of extremist anti-contraception rhetoric and legislation from the right wing. And they were ignorant: Limbaugh repeatedly riffed on the idea that Fluke must be “having so much sex, she can’t afford the contraception,” making it seem like he honestly believes that the more sex you have, the more birth control pills you have to take. (I’ll let you provide the requisite Limbaugh-and-pills joke.)

But they may also turn out to be damaging in a more material, if not ultimately fatal, way than the aftereffects of various other stupid things Limbaugh has said in the past — because they were personal, and because of who they were personally directed against.

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The way the Limbaugh controversy has unfolded since last week has reminded me of another radio host famous for saying outrageous things, who suddenly crossed a line and self-immolated: Don Imus, who lost his radio and TV gigs in 2007 after referring to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Pushing the envelope was just something Imus did, and generally got a pass for from his media peers and politicians. But the Rutgers incident changed that and put much of what he’d said in the past in a new light.

Why? The insult and racially charged language weren’t anything new on Imus’ show. The issue with his Rutgers slam was power. Imus said something egregiously hurtful, not about a politician or a massively popular celebrity or even a pro athlete but about high-achieving college students who did nothing more to deserve the remarks than get attention for doing something that would make most parents proud. On top of every other reason to reject Imus’ remarks, it was a classic jerk move, with a high-profile man elevating some women far less famous and established than him just to insult them. You might not have liked Imus’ calling anyone a nappy-headed ho, but the blatant status asymmetry of the situation — a big shot picking on college women — offended a basic sense of decency even among people who didn’t object to him before.

Limbaugh’s situation may not be exactly parallel, because all analogies break down at some point, but there’s a lot of basic similarity. Again, you have an old man with a tremendously successful radio show attacking a well-spoken young woman in college for the beliefs she volunteered to argue in a very personal and directly sexual way. At this point, it becomes not just outrageousness and hyperbole; it’s unfair bullying that will resonate beyond the people who already couldn’t stand Rush.

[Update: As for Imus, on Monday he blasted Limbaugh as a "gutless loser" for his remarks, and for apologizing for them via his website and not in person.]

Say obnoxious things about the President and you can call yourself a political entertainer; say sexually insulting things about a young woman getting an education and speaking her mind and you are, in a way that goes far beyond FCC standards, indecent. You could disagree with Fluke on contraception and insurance policy but still — hearing a sneering rich guy call her a whore to millions of listeners — imagine her as your student, your daughter or your friend.

No way will I predict that the controversy is going to drive Limbaugh off the air. The reaction against him has not been as fast, strong and wide-reaching as it was with the Imus conflagration. (And even Imus has managed to keep on broadcasting.) Some sponsors have left his show, and there may be more. But there is still money to be made off a Rush Limbaugh show, and he maintains enough influence that conservative politicians are afraid to criticize him too strongly. (Mitt Romney said Limbaugh’s remarks were “not the language I would have used.” Not the language? Does he have a nicer way in mind of calling a political critic promiscuous?) Still, it’s telling that this is one incident that has driven Limbaugh — the king of blustering past controversy and letting his detractors stew — to apologize. (Kind of: “I chose the wrong words in my analogy”? No, at the very least, he chose the wrong analogy, i.e., user of insurance-covered birth control = whore.)

I don’t believe that Rush Limbaugh suddenly has a sense of decency. But he may have, for once, finally realized that other people do — and that even he can hurt himself by offending it.

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